What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? (Part II)

Q: My family is doing genealogical research, and we’ve discovered discrepancies in the birth-dates of a couple of our great-grandparents….  They married very young, and depending on which birth-dates are correct, we’re thinking it’s possible they may really have been too young to marry validly in the Church.  If a marriage is invalid due to the age of the spouses, does it automatically become valid when they’re old enough?  Or do they need to have another wedding ceremony once they’ve reached the minimum age? –Frank

A: The situation described in Frank’s question is rather similar to that discussed in the last column, in that it concerns people who married invalidly in the Church, but who wish to remain together as husband and wife.  In “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part I,” we saw that if a marriage involving at least one Catholic is invalid due to lack of canonical form, it is possible for the Church to validate it retroactively—a process known as radical sanation (c. 1161).  A marriage that has been radically sanated by church authorities is considered to have been valid from the beginning.

But Frank’s scenario is not identical, since it appears that his ancestors were married in a Catholic wedding ceremony—following canonical form—but they may in fact have married invalidly because of the impediment of age.  (See “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” for more on this marriage impediment.)  By definition, a person who is impeded from marrying due to his/her young age, will eventually outgrow the impediment!  So if someone managed erroneously to marry in a Catholic ceremony while still under this impediment, would it be necessary to actually do anything to make the invalid marriage valid, when the spouses were finally both old enough and the impediment ceased?

The answer is yes.  A marriage that was celebrated invalidly because of an impediment, does not later automatically become valid simply because the impediment ceases to exist.  Under the Code of Canon Law today, there are two different procedures available for validating a marriage that is invalid due to an impediment–both of which are commonly described in street-parlance as “having a marriage blessed.”  We don’t know whether Frank’s great-grandparents were actually underage at the time of their wedding or not; and in any case they would have been bound by a different set of marriage laws than we currently have in the 1983 Code.  But let’s presume, for the sake of argument, that we’re dealing with an invalid marriage in which one or both spouses were impeded due to age, and see how their situation could be corrected today.

1) The process of radical sanation, described in Part I, can generally be applied also to marriages that are invalid due to an impediment which needed to be dispensed—and wasn’t.  (The notion of dispensation, the relaxation of an ecclesiastical law in a particular case {c. 85}, was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)  In this case, if one or both spouses were under the minimum age for a valid Catholic marriage, they should first have obtained a dispensation from the impediment of age (assuming, of course, that church officials would have been willing to grant it!).

If it would have been possible to obtain a dispensation from the impediment from the diocesan bishop before the wedding, canon 1165.2 provides that the current bishop can now, after the fact, grant a dispensation from the impediment, and retroactively validate the marriage (c. 1161.1).  The marriage would then be considered by the Church to have been valid from the moment of its celebration (c. 1161.2).

Note that this would be a particularly suitable way to rectify the problem, if the two spouses honestly had no idea that there had been an impediment in the first place!  This might be the case if, let’s say, the parish pastor who married the couple had misunderstood their ages, and wrongly thought that both spouses were old enough; or the pastor got confused, and thought he had already obtained a dispensation from the impediment before the wedding, when in fact he hadn’t.  Let’s say that after the wedding is over and done with, and the new couple has begun their married life together, the pastor somehow realizes the mistake.  He could request that his bishop sanate the marriage, granting the dispensation after the fact—and the spouses would never even need to know what had happened.  Thus they would be spared any distress in a matter which had not been their fault at all.

2)  Another procedure exists for resolving the issue of a marriage invalid due to an impediment: that of simple convalidation.  Speaking generally, this would likely be the method used if
(a) the impediment had become a matter of public knowledge; or
(b) one or both spouses had known from the get-go that the impediment existed, and had for whatever reason managed to conceal it.

In order to validate a marriage using the process of simple convalidation, two things must happen: the impediment must either cease on its own or be dispensed, and the spouse(s) who knew of the existence of the impediment must renew consent to the marriage (c. 1156.1).  If others have somehow learned publicly of the impediment, canon 1158.1 declares that the couple must renew their consent using the canonical form for marriage—in other words, they must go through another marriage ceremony, exchanging consent in the presence of the local bishop or their parish pastor, or another priest (or deacon) delegated by either of them (c. 1108.1).  The need for a new ceremony in a case which has become public is only logical: if other people have learned that the couple really isn’t married due to an impediment, the validation of their invalid marriage likewise should be public.  People need to know that while they weren’t truly husband and wife before, they are now!

If the impediment has not become a matter of public knowledge, then a new ceremony isn’t required.  Instead, all that is needed is for the spouse who knew about the impediment to renew consent privately.  If both spouses were aware of it, then they must both do this.  But it’s conceivable that only one spouse was aware of the impediment—and perhaps the other spouse is still in the dark.  If that is the case, then the spouse who knew about the problem can renew consent privately and in secret, leaving the other one unaware that there had ever been a problem in the first place (c. 1158.2).

An invalid marriage which has been validated in this manner is considered legally to be valid from the time of the renewal of consent—not from the beginning.  In other words, simple convalidation is not retroactive.

To return now to the marriage of Frank’s great-grandparents, it’s important to bear in mind that there is no reason for us to conclude that they were not in fact married in the eyes of the Church.  In the absence of a judgment by a marriage tribunal (reached only after a thorough investigation of their case), we are to assume that their marriage was valid.  That’s because marriage enjoys the favor of the law (c. 1060), which means that all marriages are presumed to be valid unless and until the contrary is proven.  Since there is no clear-cut, public evidence that they were under age, only the spouses themselves had the legal standing to challenge the validity of their marriage (c. 1674 n. 1), and that right died with them.  It’s perhaps interesting to analyze the case as a matter of curiosity, but we may safely assume that the Catholic Church will forever after consider them husband and wife.

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